Dr Frank Nicholson gave a full house at Todmorden U3A’s AGM a well illustrated talk about his time as director of the McGill University Subarctic Research Laboratory at Schefferville in north-west Quebec.
It is a land where it is possible to sharpen your whisky with 300 year old glacial water, but such exceptional luxury is not to be taken for granted, for north-west Quebec is also a land where temperatures of -40 are common, where snowsuits, snowshoes, skis and snowmobiles are de rigueur, where aeroplanes end up on their noses if the brakes freeze, and snowstorms in August are not unknown and complement the discomfort caused by myriads of biting flies. So what was Dr Nicholson doing there? There seemed to be two reasons for anyone to live in such an environment: one was iron ore, the other was scientific research, and Dr Nicholson’s was the latter. In his talk he covered subjects as varied as lichen, insect life, permafrost, snow maps, and CO2 absorption by plants. He also fulminated against the deliberate burning of trees to make survey and road-building costs cheaper. In burned landscapes at those latitudes the ground freezes more intensely making it harder for trees to set seed. If he saw a fire, he and his colleagues and students would set off to fight it, even if they had to improvise rafts to reach the flames. He also contended that hydroelectric schemes were proving environmentally damaging. One of the consequences of the land being flooded is that mercury is released, finds its way into the water courses and poisons the fish which are one of the staple foods of the indigenous Naskapi and Cree peoples. Much of Dr Nicholson’s work concerned permafrost, as it was permafrost that was often a major challenge in considering the viability of a mining operation. The mining operations are all opencast, and access to the ore is only possible once the frozen overburden has been removed. However, in the past, the mines have been productive enough to have made it worthwhile flying in materials for both rail links to Sept Îles (the port on the Gulf of St Laurence) and for dams to produce electricity required to support the population and the mining industry. Trains were sometimes up to two miles long, carrying in excess of 25,000 tonnes. A two-miler would have three engines at the front, one in the middle and two at the back. It’s not often that we are able to secure the time of such a knowledgeable speaker, and we are very grateful to Dr Nicholson for his interesting and scientifically authoritative talk. Our AGM was conducted with exemplary and meticulous exactitude and speed by our outgoing chairman, Keith Coates, who was able to announce that Marion Kershaw had been returned as secretary, Dinah Kenworthy as membership secretary, and that Ernie Rogan was was our new chairman, there being no other nominations. We offer them all our best wishes for success in their roles. Our thanks go to Keith for his gubernatorial nous, and to Margaret Gunnill, Liz Hurst, and Jean Pearson who have all served on the committee and are now standing down. Our next meeting will be held on Thursday, July 21 in the Central Methodist Church in Todmorden at 1.45pm when our speaker will be David Gilman, who will be talking to us about volunteer building projects in Guatemala and Palestine. Our contact details are www.u3atod.org.uk, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 01706 839175.